This week I entered Vietnam from Southern Laos, through the small border post of Bo Y, which has only recently been opened to foreigners. My bus then headed down highway 14 towards Da Nang following the valley of the PoKo River. I had heard that Southern Vietnam had been hit by Typhoon Ketsana at the end of September but I didn’t know that this area of the Central Highlands had been so badly affected. It was easy to see how high the river had risen and how torrents of water had poured down the hillsides and cut new channels along its banks, many of which looked like they had covered the road and gone through people’s houses. We crossed landslide after landslide, all of them now cleared but in a couple of places the road had completely disappeared, and we had to negotiate temporary roads bulldozed through the mud. It was still raining and all credit to the Vietnamese, the road was open and they were already rebuilding the missing sections but the people here really must have suffered.
My first destination in Vietnam was Hoi An, the historic trading town on the coast, whose centre has streets of wonderful old buildings, many made of wood. I’d met a couple of people who’d been in Hoi An when Ketsana came to call. The power was off and the town was flooded, not much new there I thought, as the last time I was here, fourteen years ago, I had to wade through a meter of water to get to a hotel and the power was intermittent. This time everything was fine, and whatever damage had been caused had been cleared up, although a lot of houses with corrugated roofs still had the sandbags on top of them which were used to hold them down. Hoi An was completely changed from when I was last here, the beautiful historic buildings were much the same, but there has been an explosion in the number of shops particularly, but also hotels and restaurants. If you have the cash you can stay and eat in some wonderful places. All these shops, particularly the tailors, rely on steady streams of tourists, most on packages and predominantly Australian who are bussed in from resorts on the coast. Walking up the street, the cries of ‘You buy something in my shop’ follow you all the way. All this commercialism doesn’t distract of the charm of the place, it is a lovely place to wander around and there a lot of very beautiful things to see. The waterfront now has rows of restaurants and when night falls and they’re all lit up, it’s very photogenic, and a great place to eat.
One thing that’s unique to Vietnam is that the cities don’t seem to have any kind of organized public transport system, there are no city buses. There are also very few private cars, instead everyone gets about either by cycle or by small motorbikes/mopeds, which throng the streets in their thousands. It’s like society had jumped a step, from no transport to private transport, missing out the publicly owned bit in between. What happened to communism? Everything can be carried by motorbike, usually with the driver holding on to it with one hand. I’ve seen pipes, metal rods, plate glass, five pigs (in metal cages), and to cap the lot, a motorbike carrying another motorbike and its driver. Interestingly for a developing country, Vietnam has a helmet law which is enforced and almost universally complied with. Another essential accessory, particularly for women are face masks (‘Hello Kitty’ masks being very popular) to keep out pollution, dirt, the sun and germs; swine flu is a continent wide obsession. Add sunglasses, and the city girls look like they’re all heading out to rob a bank.
My journey from Hoi An up to Hue took me past China Beach, which during the Vietnam War was the R & R ‘resort’ for American soldiers. Now it has been carved up into huge fenced off lots all with pictures outside of the luxury apartments that are going to be built there - For sales call the hotline number now !!!! A few of these behemoths are already been built and it’s clear to see that in a couple of years, China Beach will just be a wall of concrete. What would Uncle Ho have made of it all?
I passed through Da Nang which is a city made new, with lots of hotels and business centres and Hue is very similar, at least in the ‘New City’ which is on the southern bank of the Perfume River. The sights, the citadel and the Purple Forbidden City of the Vietnamese emperors is on the northern bank, and fourteen years ago this is where I spent all my time, I never had a reason to go to the southern bank at all. But now for travellers, the New city is the place to be, as most of the hotels, restaurants and travel agents are clustered in one area, with one street P.N.Lao as its centre. There’s even a backpackers hostel here with its residents permanently sprawled outside the entrance with beer bottles in their hands.
Hue is very flat and great city to cycle around. The size of the citadel is very impressive and easy to explore. Head out to its northern end, which has lots of lakes and a countryside feel about it, few tourists go there. When I went to the Forbidden City in 1995, the area you could visit was very small and there was little to see. Bombed to bits pretty much summed it up. Since then they’ve had the builders in with replica buildings constructed and more going up. Of course very little of it is authentic, but in a couple of year’s visitors with get a sense of the scale and grandeur of the original.
Just outside the citadel is one of Hues great institutions, Lac Thien, the famous restaurant where the owners are deaf and dumb. I went here in ’95, as did just about everybody as they were listed in the Lonely Planet guide, the only one in English at that time. Or I think I did as there were two restaurants next to each other then and outside one was a woman saying ‘Don’t go in there they aren’t the one in Lonely Planet, those people are just pretending to be deaf and dumb!’ Now there are three restaurants next to each other, all with similar names and all boasting the Lonely Planet quote ‘The food is awesom’. They also all have big boards outside listing all the guidebooks they are now in, which is pretty much all of them and have the same ‘world famous’ bottle opener, a piece of wood with a screw in it. Even though they are now a long way from where most travellers stay and eat they seem to be doing OK, and are even on the tour circuit. Two of the restaurants do seem to be owned by the same family, and the one I ate in did have a man who was dumb. Unfortunately, like so many places who are in all the books, they don’t have to try very hard and the food I ate there was pretty poor. So go and have a look, pick one of the three, have a drink opened with the famous bottle opener, but give the food a miss.